Yvonne Manzi Makolo was appointed CEO of RwandAir in April 2018. With no prior experience of the aviation industry, she has risen to the challenge and – less than a year in – she speaks to Victoria Moores with all the authority and passion of an industry veteran.
“This is the toughest job I’ve ever had,” Yvonne Manzi Makolo said, as began our chat about how she came to be CEO of RwandAir. “It’s been a crash course in learning about the aviation industry.” The smile in her voice shows that she relishes the challenge.
Makolo was placed with RwandAir by government appointment in April 2017 and was promoted to CEO a year later. “I’m a telephone [industry] person. Now I’m in the airline industry,” she said.
While Makolo may be an industry newcomer, there are parallels between her old life in telecommunications and her new life in aviation. Both industries depend on keen customer focus, while maintaining tight control of revenues and costs. But, more importantly, both RwandAir and telecommunications are vital national infrastructure with one central role: connecting people.
“RwandAir’s primary purpose and goal is to support the economy. We are a land-locked country, so the need for aviation is extremely high. It is critical for the development of the country. Road transport is very expensive and tedious. The importance of air transport is a no-brainer for the country,” said Makolo.
Rwanda is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, expanding at around 7% per year. Its main export used to be tea and coffee, but that has now shifted to tourism.
The country also ranks third in Africa, in terms of hosting international conferences, cementing RwandAir’s importance as a national asset. “I believe that success has a lot to do with connections to the country,” Makolo said, as well as the government’s visa-on-arrival policy, which simplifies travel to Rwanda.
“Rwanda understands the importance of connection, especially to African countries and beyond. This is a major priority for the airline and for the government,” she said.
When Makolo joined RwandAir, the airline operated around 20 routes. Since then, London (UK) and Brussels (Belgium) have joined the network and a new hub has been opened in Cotonou (Benin). Today, the airline flies to 26 destinations and is still growing. “It’s been a very fast expansion process,” Makolo said.
RwandAir operates 12 aircraft, comprising two Airbus A330s, six Boeing 737NGs, two Bombardier CRJs and two Q400s. “We have a very diverse fleet. We are looking at rationalising, by phasing out the CRJs and focussing on the Q400s, in terms of our regional routes.”
In 2019, RwandAir will also take two A330neos and two 737 MAX 8s on lease, which will be used for growth rather than replacements. The A330neos will be deployed on new long-haul routes to Guangzhou, China and New York JFK, as well as boosting capacity to Dubai, Lagos (Nigeria) and Johannesburg (South Africa).
Makolo said RwandAir has already secured an operating permit for Guangzhou, but the airline is waiting to hear whether it has secured its preferred slots from the Chinese authorities, with the aim of launching in May 2019. Likewise, RwandAir has clearance to serve New York on a codeshare and wet-lease basis, but this authority needs to be extended so it can operate its own flights. The Rwandan CAA is currently going through the required Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) audits to make that happen. “That’s still a work in progress,” Makolo said.
Meanwhile, the 737 MAX 8s will be used to add services to Tel Aviv in Israel and intra-African flights to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Khartoum (Sudan), Lilongwe (Malawi) and Luanda (Angola).
Makolo said Addis Ababa should launch in April, followed by Tel Aviv in May, while the rest are still in the “very initial planning phase”.
RwandAir has no plans to open new hubs, beyond the single 737 that it has based in Cotonou, serving Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Dakar (Senegal), Douala (Cameroon) and Libreville (Gabon).
“The initial plan was to set up a joint-venture [airline] with the government of Benin. This has been a bit slow, but we continue to operate [from Cotonou] using seventh-freedom rights,” Makolo said. The aim was to grow the network from Cotonou, but if the joint venture does not materialise, RwandAir will have to revaluate its future strategy for the Benin hub.
“We have had a lot of interest in us setting up airlines [in other countries], but we still have a lot to do with our Kigali hub,” Makolo said.
Within Africa, RwandAir does not struggle for route rights – but making changes on existing routes can be tricky. “We do have challenges with some countries when we want to change our schedule, or get fifth-freedom rights,” she explained. “When you want to tweak anything, you are met with all these stumbling blocks.”
As RwandAir’s management focus is currently on optimising revenue – and, therefore, tweaking and consolidating its network – this is a challenge.
RwandAir is now leveraging the brand recognition that it has built up over recent years, offering competitive fares instead of engaging in price wars with the competition. “The growth in passenger numbers and revenues has been very encouraging and we hope to see that continue,” she said.
The rapid expansion is an ongoing challenge, which creates pressure in itself. Makolo said this makes it important for the team to regularly do a “sanity check” on the airline’s strengths and weaknesses. “That’s really our focus going forward,” she said.
This opens the door for partnerships and joint ventures, especially when it comes to human resources, training and maintenance. “We are always open in terms of partnering – it is important to work together, especially with other African airlines. We want to leverage that as much as possible, especially with smaller airlines, to get economies of scale,” she said.
To cope with RwandAir’s growth, the government is boosting the capabilities of state-owned training company Akagera Aviation.
“Akagera has already started training 20 cadet pilots for us and the idea is that they will train our pilots, engineers and cabin crew,” Makolo said. “Given the pilot shortage, this is becoming more and more of a challenge for us. One of the reasons why Akagera has to be at full capability as soon as possible is because we need pilots.”
The skills shortage also extends to headquarters staff, as well as commercial and station managers. “Getting people to manage this massive expansion is a challenge,” Makolo said.
One of the growing pains that is currently under control is airport capacity. The terminal at Kigali has just been expanded and a new airport – Bugesera International – is scheduled to open in 2020. “At the moment, we have what we need for our current plans and we will be moving completely to the new airport.”
Over the next five years, RwandAir plans to nearly double its fleet and grow from 1.2 million passengers to around 2 million. Makolo said the cost of growth and high fuel prices mean that RwandAir is not currently profitable, but the plan is to deliver a profit within the next few years. “I have gone from making a lot of money in the telephone industry to burning a lot of money in the aviation industry,” she jokes.
Did Makolo think she would ever be RwandAir CEO? “Not in a million years, but I enjoy it – it’s definitely not boring. It’s stressful and long hours, but there’s always something new happening and you see the results immediately; you don’t need to wait weeks and months. Everything is moving so fast and is so new – it’s such a revelation for me. I find myself fascinated with every small thing that happens.”
By the time we end the interview, it is clear that Makolo may not have an airline industry background, but she has all the skills needed to successfully connect Rwanda with the rest of the world.
says flexibility is key
Perhaps the most demanding part of Makolo’s job is balancing her work as an airline CEO with the demands of being mother to two young children.
“After learning how to manage toddlers, you can manage anything – nothing scares you,” Makolo said.
Rwanda has a very progressive attitude to women in leadership. RwandAir has a female CEO, chief financial officer, legal director and head of quality. This contrasts with the lack of female airline leaders in other airlines around the globe.
Makolo felt this keenly when she attended the 2018 International Air Transport Association (IATA) AGM. “I walked in and I asked where all the women were. We have so many women in decision-making positions. The lack of female CEOs in this industry is a bit strange. This industry is very much a boys’ club.”
Even RwandAir has work to do. The airline has around 150 pilots and only 5-10 are female. The proportions are similar for engineering functions. “That, for me, is a huge, huge challenge,” Makolo said. “We need to encourage more females in school to get into the industry. If Rwanda is positioning itself as an aviation hub, we will need as much talent as possible.”
Makolo accepts that being an airline CEO requires long hours. “It’s not about having fewer working hours, but more flexibility.” She goes home for lunch with her family, but then works until very late. “That sort of flexibility, I think, will be very important in giving women the change to rise to the top.”
MRO aspirations at Kigali
Makolo sees potential for RwandAir to do more maintenance work in-house in the future However, the focus is on doing it right, rather than doing it quickly.
RwandAir currently partners with Ethiopian Airlines on its Q400 and 737 maintenance. Lufthansa Technik performs work on the airline’s A330s, while Netherlands-based SAMCO Aircraft Maintenance performs work on the CRJs.
“In the long term, we want to establish our own maintenance facilities here in Kigali,” Makolo said. “We are very much in the initial stages in establishing that, but we want to do it as soon as possible.”
When asked whether this could take the form of a joint venture, she said all possibilities were open.
RwandAir currently does its own line maintenance and the airline would look to gradually build up its capabilities. “It would have to be progressive. I don’t see us going straight to C checks. We would start with A checks and go all the way up,” she said.
Safety is a major priority for RwandAir. The airline has just secured IATA IOSA certification for the third time. “The safety culture cuts across everyone in the airline,” Makolo said.
The freight of expectation
As RwandAir grows, so, too, does the country’s cargo network. Makolo said A330 belly capacity on the Brussels and London flights is being used to ship fruit and vegetables out of the country.
“At the moment, we are looking at filling the belly capacity, but down the road we are aiming at dedicated freighters as well,” she said, adding that available belly capacity can be a challenge during the peak season.
The move towards dedicated freighter operations is about five or six years away. In the meantime, growing demand for cargo will be met by belly capacity from RwandAir’s incoming wide-bodies. (africanaerospace)